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Will Norwalk Embrace Housing at Transit Hubs?

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Building housing near and around transportation hubs such as train stations and town centers to make it easier to get to work without cars – and create affordable housing for young people and seniors — is gaining the attention of town leaders across the county.

But is there enough support for transit-oriented development in the more affluent suburban towns in Fairfield County, where zoning changes would be required to allow increased housing density?

Housing advocates, business leaders and environmental groups are promoting the idea, saying it has been a success in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

A forum on the topic is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Norwalk City Hall, 125 East Ave., sponsored by the South Western Regional Planning Agency and HOPE Regional Housing Forums.

The 90-minute forum is for mayors, first selectmen, zoning commissioners and business and community leaders.

"Housing is not available in many of our towns to college graduates who can't afford to live in the communities where they grew up, and for seniors who raised their families and want to downsize," said David Fink, policy director of the Partnership for Strong Communities in Hartford.

The lack of sufficient housing supply "has hurt the state's economy and burdened its municipalities," Fink said, pointing out that Connecticut "has lost a higher percentage of its 25- to 34-year-old skilled and educated labor than any other state. Our cities and towns lack the housing options needed for teachers, firefighters, police, municipal workers, elderly parents and adult children wishing to return to the towns they grew up in."

The nonprofit group is promoting changes in local zoning and encouraging the transit-oriented development concept to create more affordable housing.

Floyd Lapp, executive director of the South Western Regional Planning Agency that covers Norwalk, Stamford, Greenwich, Westport, Weston, Wilton, New Canaan and Darien, will be at the forum. He said transit-oriented housing is important in Fairfield County, which has more than 20 train stations.

"Building housing that is affordable near train stations and buses makes a lot of sense, both for individuals and for the towns," Lapp said. "It's a way for young and older people to get around without having to use a car, which both of these groups can greatly benefit from, as can the business communities where they will eat and shop."

Joan Carty, president and CEO of the Housing Development Fund in Stamford, a nonprofit lender that finances affordable housing and provides counseling and consumer loans to first-time home buyers, said her agency also supports transit-oriented development.

"It's an excellent idea because it provides people with alternative ways to get to and from work by making it affordable for them to live near mass transit," Carty said. "It also creates vibrancy to coordinated mixed-use development around main transportation hubs, and helps to promote an urban experience.

"When people have an opportunity to walk to the train or go out to the theater for entertainment without having to drive, they really enjoy it," Carty said. "With the high cost of gas, people are gravitating toward less dependence on cars and creating mixed-use housing near mass transit is one of the best ways to make that possible."

Affordable housing developers agreed. "The cost of housing and transportation are intrinsically linked to one another. By locating affordable housing in a walkable, transit-served neighborhood, residents have ease of access to jobs, schools, shopping and community services, which reduces the burden of costs associated with driving," said Caroline Vary, director of Jonathan Rose Cos. in Connecticut, which built Metro Green housing developments in Stamford in a joint venture with Malkin Properties.

"When affordable housing is made energy efficient and located in transit-oriented neighborhoods, it results in housing that more effectively saves residents' money."

To reach Richard Weizel, email him at rweizel@mainstreetconnect.us .

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